Rich Cho's Brain Trust Transplant: Bill Branch, Steve Rosenberry Hired As Assistant GMs

If we learned one thing this week in the NBA, it's this: even modern-day hybrid Horatio Alger/Albert Einstein paragons of anti-nepotism and pro-intellect will surround themselves with trusted friends if given the choice.  Portland Trail Blazers Rich Cho, an NBA executive unlike so many others, announced two by-the-book hires this morning, naming former colleagues Bill Branch and Steve Rosenberry as his Assistant General Managers this morning. The team formally announced the hires in a text message to the media.  

The hires amount to promotions for both men, who previously served as Oklahoma Citys Director of Pro Player Personnel and Atlanta's Director of Pro Personnel, respectively.  As such, both men come to their new positions from long scouting backgrounds, creating a front office setup that is significantly different from the Kevin Pritchard era.  Different doesn't necessarily mean better or worse, though, and it's clear Cho is fashioning the boardroom in his mold, addressing his own weaknesses (real and perceived) by loading up on knowledgeable and well-connected advisory voices.  

Before we dive deeper into that, though, let's take a brief look at each new assistant GM in turn.

The Hires

Bill Branch

As I noted last week, Branch has served more than 20 years in the NBA in a variety of positions, including as an assistant coach and director of scouting.  Branch was hired by the Seattle SuperSonics prior to the 2007-2008 season and made the move, along with Cho, to Oklahoma City, serving as the Thunder's Director of Pro Personnel.

Branch, who has been dubbed a "godfather of advanced scouting", has an NBA career rise that mirrors Cho's. His Thunder bio notes that he started as "an administrative assistant in the [Hornets] player personnel department from 1987-90" before later "design[ing] the team's first computerized scouting database to track collegiate and pro talent."     

For Cho, Branch likely represents a trusted voice with a proven history and advanced understanding of systematic scouting, who brings the relationships and player evaluation skills that go along with being in scouting circles for 20 years. Given his resume and background, Branch will focus primarily on professional scouting, working closely with Mike Born. 

Steve Rosenberry 

Rosenberry, who is also known as "Rosie" or "the tannest person in the NBA", also brings more than 20 years of experience to Cho's staff, but he adds the perspective of a former player as well, having played both in college and in the CBA.

Rosenberry, like Cho and Branch, is another steady-climber, having served as a scout, consultant, and director of scouting over the years.  As I noted last week, he also held a prominent position with And 1 shoes which added to his reputation as someone with a lot of solid relationships within college and youth basketball. Rosenberry and Cho worked together in Seattle prior to Rosenberry's hiring by the Atlanta Hawks and their GM, former Sonics executive Rick Sund.

For Cho, Rosenberry likely represents another trusted voice, a high-energy scout who breathes the game, a feet-on-the-ground, face-to-face approach to evaluating and compiling information on prospects, and a solid rolodex. Given his resume and background, Rosenberry will focus primarily on college scouting, working closely with Chad Buchanan. 

How Does It All Fit Together?

A few important bullet-style notes on these hirings.

  • While the two assistant GM structure Cho has put in place mimics the setup in Oklahoma City, the roles are slightly different.  Two scouts report to the chief executive, rather than a basketball specializer and a business specializer reporting to the chief executive.
  • Rich Cho's memo to President Larry Miller regarding the salary cap and the Collective Bargaining Agreement: "I got this."
  • Portland's already-extensive scouting department just got even more extensive. What was considered a great strength of Pritchard's regime is now larger and more experienced.  The challenge will be maintaining efficiency and consistency.  
  • It can't be overlooked: we're witnessing a re-shuffling of the inner circle.  Born and Buchanan, who were seen as Pritchard's right hand men when it came to player evaluation, are now, at least formally, an additional layer of management removed from their department's chief executive.  To be clear, it's not a demotion.  But this kind of transplant or infusion will take some getting used to for all parties. Both men were strong candidates for assistant GM in their own rights.  
  • While Miller showed great savvy in maneuvering to retain Born and Buchanan earlier this summer, this kitchen is jam-packed with cooks. What's that saying?  Portland is "two deep at every position?"  That goes for the front office now too. Everyone involved is said to have the right personality and demeanor to make it work, but for how long?  I suppose that's a question that can wait until next summer but it should be raised now too.

What Do These Hires Tell Us About Rich Cho?

No doubt the consistent Seattle connections that are being added in Portland can give an off-putting or uneasy feeling.  I wouldn't dismiss either candidate solely on that basis just yet, however, and I think, despite initial appearances, the hires show some serious confidence and shrewdness on Cho's part.

The perception of Rich Cho, to the extent that there is one, focuses almost entirely on the elegant salary cap moves made during the Sam Presti regime.  By hiring two scouts as his assistants, Cho is effectively telling the NBA community and Blazers fans that his personal knowledge level and skill are sufficient to produce similar success here in Portland.  He's accepting that burden, in its entirety, and I get the sense he's smiling while doing so. Given what we know about his personality -- ego-free, grounded, in control of his emotions, logical -- we're left as observers to assume that he's taking on that weight because he doesn't need the help. He's playing multi-player "Call of Duty: Salary Cap Warfare" and instructing his partners to holster their guns and fall in line behind him as he beats the entire game. 

On the flip side, Cho surely realizes that his lack of playing and coaching experience will always dog him in the NBA. Being a quant or a lawyer makes you different in league circles; being both makes you the fastest baby goldfish in the entire world, incapable of having old, trusted hands wrapped around you.  By hiring two long-time and well-respected scouts Cho has, intentionally or not, established a nice buffer between himself and any potential future criticism for draft moves.  

Lastly, one final maxim that should be self-evident by this point is worth repeating: Cho got his guys. It doesn't appear that anyone else was interviewed for these positions.  League sources make it clear that these were Cho's top choices, and probably his only choices.  For an executive who hasn't yet been able to address the question, "Can he make a deal?", it's comforting to know he has the internal juice to add not one but two of his own people to an established organization and the external juice to see the hirings through to completion, even if the process took longer than anyone would have liked.

Final Thoughts

Portland's scouting department has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the organization to watch up close over the last few years.  I don't think it was an exaggeration when I called the old regime a brain trust immediately following the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT in March. What we have today is a brain trust transplant, the addition of a fully-functioning second brain to a body that already has most of its brain in place.  It's a unique and delicate procedure, one that might not last that very long and one that comes with a fair share of risks.

Personally, I expect it to be kind of fun. Who wouldn't want two brains?

Click through for the text of the team's press release.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

Mike Barrett has posted some quotes from Bill Branch and Steve Rosenberry.  

And here's the text of the team's press release.

TRAIL BLAZERS NAME BRANCH AND ROSENBERRY

ASSISTANT GENERAL MANAGERS

 PORTLAND, Ore. - The Portland Trail Blazers have hired Bill Branch and Steve Rosenberry to become the team's assistant general managers, it was announced today by General Manager Rich Cho.

 
Branch's responsibilities will center on NBA talent along with Director of NBA Scouting Michael Born, while Rosenberry and Director of College Scouting Chad Buchanan will focus on the college ranks.
 
"I've had the opportunity to work closely with both Bill and Steve and have always been impressed by their tremendous basketball acumen, work ethic and character," said Cho. "I am thrilled to have them join me, Chad and Mike as part of our front office staff."  
 
Branch, 44, joins the Trail Blazers from Oklahoma City, where he worked alongside Cho for the past three seasons as the team's director of pro player personnel. A 23-year NBA veteran, Branch worked for the Denver Nuggets from 1997-2007, first as an advance scout and for the last five years of his tenure as assistant coach and director of scouting. Branch spent the previous 10 years on the Charlotte Hornets' basketball operations staff, from 1987-97.
 
"I'm very excited to have the opportunity to work for a team with such a rich tradition, great fan base and talented staff," said Branch. "I look forward to doing everything I can to contribute and help the Trail Blazers move forward and build upon some great pieces."
 
Also a veteran NBA talent evaluator, Rosenberry most recently served as director of pro personnel/college scouting with the Atlanta Hawks from 2008-10. Rosenberry, 55, got his NBA start with Seattle in 1985 and worked for six seasons there as a scout before joining the Charlotte Hornets in a similar capacity from 1991-94. Rosenberry returned to Seattle in 1994 and spent the next 13 seasons there until 2007, most recently serving as director of scouting. Before joining the Hawks in 2008, Rosenberry spent the 2007-08 season as a consultant with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Rosenberry played two seasons for the Lancaster Red Roses of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) from 1978-80. He then spent two years in Europe with the McGregor Power All-Stars before pursuing a basketball management career in the NBA.

"I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with Rich, and while I have tremendous respect for him as a basketball person, he's been a great friend throughout the years," said Rosenberry. "It's exciting to be a part of an organization with a storied history and winning tradition such as Portland's."
 
Branch and Rosenberry will start on the job next week in preparation for the 2010-11 season.

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